SALEM, Ohio – Just east of Pittsburgh’s outerbelt are dairies and beef farms, traditional and niche operations, full-time and part-time farmers making a go of their dreams.
There’s also development pressure from suburbanites moving away from sidewalked neighborhoods to more pastoral parcels.
Residents are stuck in a Catch-22: New builders want to live near farms, but in doing so are making those farms disappear, gobbling up pastures and cropground.
Locals are convinced it doesn’t have to be that way.
Piloted. Westmoreland County, Pa., is one of four Keystone State counties to pilot a program to help farmers and their neighbors live together harmoniously.
Warren County, in northwestern Pennsylvania, is also trying the program.
The Future of Westmoreland Agriculture program is an offshoot of a program developed by Penn State’s Cooperative Extension, according to Anita Nichols, Westmoreland extension community development educator.
“It’s about farmers and nonfarmers looking together at challenges and opportunities that exist for farming in the county,” Nichols said.
“People want to see agricultural support maintained in the long run. If it’s good in other counties, it’s perfect for here,” she said of the county’s decision to get involved in the program.
The extension program has roots in business retention and community planning, and will go hand in hand with the county’s first overall strategic plan currently under development, Nichols said.
Gather interest. Westmoreland County extension educators started to gather interest nearly a year ago through meetings with farm agency personnel as well as farmers and nonfarmers.
They found interest and positive feedback, and introduced their idea to the public at a meeting in April 2004.
“If nobody signed up at that point, we would have stopped. Instead, 140 showed up,” Nichols said, noting involvement continues to snowball.
A leadership committee, chosen this summer, is coordinating town-hall type meetings this fall (see related article for details) and onfarm visits after harvest season.
“We’re not going to change the price of milk or add 50 cents to corn, but we can try to eliminate some of the conflict that makes farming such a hassle.”
Opportunity. Bob Graham, a dairyman from Ligonier Valley, sees the program as an opportunity. He serves as chairman of the county’s leadership team.
“The best part is there are no predetermined ideas in this. That gives us a wider basis to gather ideas,” he said.
Graham calls himself “cautiously optimistic” the program will work, given its flexibility for the county.
“We can look at farmers’ needs across the board. We’re not going to change the price of milk or add 50 cents to corn, but we can try to eliminate some of the conflict that makes farming such a hassle,” he said.
“But the benefits will be at the back end, not the front end, so we’ve got to be patient,” he said.
Outcomes. In Cumberland and York counties, where the state initiative kicked off, organizers have been able to start buy-local campaigns, develop educational materials for farmers and nonfarmers, as well as alternative marketing outlets.
Volunteers have stuck with it for more than two years in Cumberland County, according to Tim Collins. In York County, they’ve been at it for more than a year, he said.
Collins is an Adams County extension educator and also serves as a regional economic and community development team leader in those counties.
Grants from the state department of agriculture’s risk management fund and local monies paid for the projects, Collins said.
Penn State and its extension have helped with budgeting in Westmoreland County, and local agribusinesses have added to the till, Anita Nichols said.
Overcome. Collins said counties have been successful, but have had wrinkles along the way. The biggest obstacle to programming is overcoming the pessimism so many farmers feel, he believes.
“It’s a tough market out there. But see it as an opportunity. There’s a lot of public support for agriculture,” he said.
Statistics. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service showed Westmoreland County had nearly 151,000 acres in farms in 2002 with about $35 million in outputs.
In Warren County, NASS statistics showed roughly 78,000 acres in farms and $15 million in farm outputs.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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Attention farmers: ‘Let’s talk’
Farmers and rural residents are invited to participate in a series of “Let’s Talk” meetings through the Future of Agriculture initiatives in Westmoreland and Warren counties.
A key first step in the program is gathering input from farmers across the county to identify the challenges and opportunities they see in farming today and in the future.
For convenience, sessions are scheduled in various sites across Westmoreland County:
* Oct. 28 at 7:30 p.m., Loyalhanna Watershed Association Office, 110 Andi Lane, Ligonier.
* Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m., First United Church of Christ, Mount Pleasant.
* Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m., Washington Township Fire Department,
Route 66, Apollo.
* Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m., Donohoe Center, Greensburg.
The informal meetings will last about 90 minutes. Refreshments will be served.
For more information, call Anita Nichols at 724-837-1402 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Residents of Warren County are also invited to participate in sessions in that county. Meetings are scheduled for:
* Nov. 11 at 8 p.m., Columbus Community Center.
* Nov. 16 at 8 p.m., 4-H Center, Warren County Fairgrounds.
* Nov. 18 at 8 p.m., Lander Firehall.
For more information, call George Wilcox at 814-563-9388.